MARSHALL - Four Southwest Minnesota State University students returned from the Research Chefs Association (RCA) Student Culinology Competition in Charlotte, N.C., as national champions.
The recent feat marked the second time in three years an SMSU team claimed the championship, having won in 2011 and placing third last year.
"Our goal was to place, so first place was awesome," said SMSU senior Abbey Filzen, captain for the winning team. Along with Filzen, a native of New Ulm, senior Jordan Groeneweg, of Brooklyn Park, senior Krystal Jochims, of Tabor, S.D., and sophomore Erin Badzinski, of Kasson, were part of the championship team.
Pictured are Southwest Minnesota State University culinology students Jordan Groeneweg, Krystal Jochims, Abbey Filzen (team captain) and Erin Badinski.
"They called up the top three finalists," Filzen said. "They named the third-place team and then the second one. I immediately broke down crying because we worked so hard for it. I was shaking, but it was awesome."
The category this year was a North Carolina cuisine-inspired chicken entree with two sides for a casual dining chain restaurant. The top-finishing team from SMSU created a "Chik'n Waffles" dish, which consisted of chicken in waffles, with sides of succotash and mac and cheese croquettes.
"The judges liked the concept very much," said Michael Cheng, SMSU culinology director. "They said it was very innovative."
Filzen said the team starting finding recipes and developing its plans many months ago.
"We changed every recipe," she said. "For the Chik'n Waffles, we saw a recipe that used a drummie, but it looked bad. We also thought we needed to add some convenience, so we made it into a strip. It was a lot of trial and error."
The team's dish was prepared, frozen and then brought to the competition, which was March 6-9. The team was then judged on its ability to replicate the frozen product by preparing the same entrees and side dishes during the event.
"We practiced a lot, so we were well-prepared when we showed up there," Cheng said. "Each team probably averaged between 20-30 hours a week. They spent a lot of time working in the kitchen, trying to perfect the recipes."
Much of the students' free time the past few weeks was spent trying to perfect the gold standard, in which the fresh and frozen products matched up to each other.
"Our fresh product is something you can make in your kitchen," Filzen said. "Then we had to add ingredients to our commercialized version to make it stable, to hold up through shipping. We did it countless times to get them to match. It took forever."
During the national competition in North Carolina, Filzen said the biggest challenge the team had was working in a smaller kitchen area than it was used to.
"The kitchens were really small," she said. "But luckily, we had practiced so much that we got in a rhythm. And after the competition, we thought we had executed the best we ever had. Our plates looked fantastic."
Cheng also pointed out that while 50 percent of the scores were based on on-site competition, the other 50 percent was judged on a proposal that was submitted prior to the competition in North Carolina.
"It's actually a two-stage process," he said. "We were given the criteria back in August, and we had to put together what our concept was, what our goal was and what our recipe was. By the time the judges read it, we were already working on gold standards on the recipe."
While Johnson and Wales University-Providence took second place and Penn State finished third, a second SMSU team also qualified as one of the top six finalists for the 2013 national competition. The achievement marked the second time in history that a university qualified two teams for the RCA competition. Clemson University was the first, advancing two teams in 2012.
"I thought both (SMSU) teams did really well," Cheng said. "I'm really proud of them."
SMSU's second team included senior captain Jeremiah Murphy, of Marshall, junior Jason Bentley, of Shorewood, senior Rich Lidstrom, of Marshall, and senior Ross Kuchta, of Canby. The group conspired to make a unique Carolina corn cake, which is similar to a Johnny cake, Cheng said, with the exception of using cornbread instead of regular flour. The dish was topped off with collards.
"I think they were pretty close to getting in the top three," Cheng said. "I think Penn State must have had a stronger proposal because I watched the entire competition, and I saw what they produced. I thought we were much stronger."
The SMSU culinology program has been in place for seven years, including three very competitive years. It's an accomplishment that Cheng and the students take a great deal of pride in.
"It's one of the best learning experiences you can get in school," Filzen said. "Our program has come so far. They revamp it every year, and it gets better and better. Obviously, our professors must be doing something right."